Alumn. . .us / a / i / ae / x?

December 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Welsey Yang, a writer by trade, must have been browsing messages from his alma mater, Rutgers, when this caught his attention. He posted it to Twitter.

(Click on an image for a larger view. I have added the blue oval for emphasis.)

English has a problem with words that are imported from Latin and Romance languages. What do we do about the gender and number that require Latin to have four different forms of the word? Alumnus, alumna, alumni, alumnae. It’s just too many to keep track of, especially since the plurals, masculine and feminine, sound alike.

The simple solution is to use a single form of the word to cover everyone, and that’s what many people have done. For that single form, there are two choices. One is alum, plural alums, which conveniently gets rid of those gendered endings in the Latin versions.

The other is the all-purpose alumni, which many Engish speakers now use indiscriminately for either gender and for singular or plural. It must drive Latin scholars up the ivy-covered wall. Both of these have been getting more popular lately. I searched for them on Nexis-Uni’s database of news sources.

(Some of the increase in these numbers may be attributable to the increased size of the Nexis database. But I doubt that it has grown by the multiple of 20-30 since the 1990s that we see for an alum and an alumni.)

A Google search for “she is an alumni of” gets 177,000 results, slightly less than the 191,000 for “she is an alumna of.” For men, “an alumnus” still outscores “an alumi” by a factor of 10, but that includes a lot of old sources. I would bet that the ratio decreases with time.

Personally, I would avoid the problem completely and go with graduates or, in less formal settings, grads.

The Rutgers Linguistic department has a different solution to the problem of gender: the very recent coinage alumnx, the word that inspired Yang to tweet. It’s a different sort of solution. The ungendered alum and the all-purpose alumni seem to have cropped up unplanned and without any ax to grind. But alumnx is a deliberate effort to change the language. What’s interesting here, as one of the Yang’s commenters points out, is that as linguists the department members are descriptivists, more interested in describing how people actually use language than in telling people which words to use. But here they are prescribing alumnx as the correct way avoid the less woke Latin forms.

My guess is that these x-words will have a short life. Most people don’t care much about the politics of speech and have little interest in changing. Remember “Freedom Fries”? Worse, alumnx and Latinx don’t resemble real words in English or in any other language.* It’s one thing to replace the “man” in policeman or fireman. “Police officer” and “fire fighter” were already part of the language well before the feminists of the 1960s called our attention to the sexism of the more frequently used terms.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these x-words will become as much a part of the language as Ms. In any case, I expect that the members of the department will, as descriptivist language researchers, monitor how well they are doing as prescriptivist language changers. (Or is it changerx?)

* Latinx has similar problems. It’s not very popular among the people it is meant to designate, probably because neither English nor Spanish has words in this form. Terry Blas suggests (here) that a better gender-neutral solution would be an “e” rather than an “x” — Latine and Latines.

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